Did she let her siblings offer suggestions while the film was being edited? “I’m too smart to do that,” Rory says. “The film locked in June. I took it to Hyannisport and showed it to my mother and some of my siblings. The first thing I did was explain what ‘locked picture’ means.”
When the movie ended, she says, “My mother was very gracious and positive about it. Which was enormously reassuring.”
“If possible,” Ethel says now, “it made me more full of admiration for Rory, how she took nothing and made it something.”
Rory rolls her eyes. “She’s going to deflect everything you ask her onto me,” Rory says. “But it’s nice of you to say that, Mummy.”
Here they are not Bobby and Ethel; they are Mummy and Daddy. The first third of the film is about the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s. College hijinks, family ski trips (Ethel first fell for Bobby when she met him during a 1945 winter vacation at Canada’s Mont Tremblant); sailing jaunts, mugging for the cameras at swimming pools; demerit points for mischievous Ethel Skakel and her pal Jean Kennedy at Manhattanville College of the Sacred Heart; pictures of Mummy and Daddy’s 1950 wedding (21 ushers!) and a Hawaiian honeymoon.
There is so much film of the young Kennedys and Skakels — and there would be even more had it not been for a warehouse fire decades ago that wiped out most of Joseph P. Kennedy’s private film archives. That is something to know about the rich: In addition to being frequently photographed, they got the point of home movies before the rest of America discovered Super-8mm. Joe Kennedy was one of the founders of RKO and embraced the technology; Jack’s historic campaigns and presidency assured that every scrap of existing film would be preserved. The Skakels also hired cameramen to film their family gatherings.
But not all of it was as easy to find as you’d expect, Rory says. What’s available in the catalogued Kennedy archives is one matter. The Skakel films — crucial to a documentary about Ethel’s life, rather than Bobby’s — had been transferred to video, which drifted through the Skakel family and took some effort to track down. They were finally discovered on the floor of a closet of the presidential library. A family friend volunteered to comb through Ethel’s attic of disorganized Kennedy ephemera looking for the only known photograph of a seal that lived, for a short time, among Hickory Hill’s many horses and dogs. “Climbing up to the attic and going through all that stuff — that’s a nice job to give someone, isn’t it?” Ethel says.
Viewed another way, “Ethel” is also about Rory. The film doesn’t show those pictures from that horrifying night in the kitchen at the Ambassador Hotel, as poor Ethel cradled her wounded husband and begged everyone to step back. Ethel was nearly four months pregnant then. That was Rory.
She was born in December of that year, forever assigned the role of being her mother’s bittersweet joy.
She never knew Daddy.
In a way, this central fact of Rory’s life makes her an emblematic figure of Generation X — the kids who were reminded by our older siblings (and the history books) that we were born late. It’s a refrain for this generation; we know the pictures and the songs and the moments. We have loads and loads of documentaries to watch. And yet the thing we want most is kept at a nostalgic remove. “By the time I was born, part of the story was over,” Rory says in the film’s narration.
Children are curious, she says now, in order to “understand your own narrative in a family, in any family. My daughters, for example, now want to know what I was like as a little girl.”
Filming “Ethel,” Rory says, at last gave her the opportunity to ask the questions she always wanted to ask.
She didn’t quite get all the answers, but she got a chance to get her mother to look back at her own life and try to admit, for the record, that she did a good job. That she raised decent children and instilled them with strong values.
“I think that was the other gene,” Ethel says near the film’s conclusion, meaning Bobby.
“You raised us, Mummy!” Rory objects.
“I just don’t feel I can take the credit,” Ethel says, unwilling to concede. “I just don’t feel it.”
(100 minutes) airs Thursday Oct.18 at 9 p.m. on HBO.